Pope's remarks at Auschwitz criticized - Catholic Courier

Pope’s remarks at Auschwitz criticized

Five years ago James Carroll, a well-known writer and columnist, published a substantial work on the history of the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jews entitled, Constantine’s Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). He returned to the subject in a column in early June, “The roots of the Holocaust” (The Boston Globe, 6/5/06).

In that piece, the former Paulist priest took strong exception to what Pope Benedict XVI said and did not say in his remarks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps during his May 25-28 pilgrimage to Poland.

“The place where we are standing,” the pope observed, “is a place of memory; it is the place of the Shoah.” Carroll began his column with that text, but he did not include the pope’s explicit reference to the Shoah, or Holocaust.

“What (the pope) said and did there,” Carroll continued, “raised questions less about remembering than forgetting.”

When the German pope visited Cologne last August, he addressed an audience of Jews at the city’s synagogue. In Carroll’s words, the pope “roundly condemned the Nazi genocide campaign,” but identified its source in “neo-paganism” rather than “its other parent, the long tradition of Christian contempt for Jews and the Jewish religion, which both fed the hatred of the perpetrators and justified the inaction of the bystanders.”

In June, according to Carroll, Pope Benedict was again “unsparing in condemning what the Nazis did,” but then “he implicitly exonerated the German people (and) effectively defined the Nazis’ ultimate target as having been not Jews but Christianity, and complained not of the church’s silence in the face of the horror, but of God’s.”

The column contrasted the pope’s remarks at Auschwitz with the general recognition in Germany itself of “national complicity in the Nazi project” and with the German hierarchy’s “forthright” confession of the culpability of the church in Germany.

The German bishops’ conference had indeed issued a remarkable statement on Jan. 23, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in which they said explicitly: “The failure and guilt of that time also have a church dimension.” The church community in Germany “as a whole … kept on living their life in turning their back too often on the fate of this persecuted Jewish people, (and) looked too fixedly at the threat to their own institutions and who remained silent about the crimes committed against the Jews and Judaism.”

The German bishops expressed their “willingness to painfully learn from this history of guilt of our country and of our church as well” (“Opportunity to Re-examine Relationships With the Jews,” Origins, 2/16/95, my emphasis).

Carroll also noted that Pope Benedict greeted 32 camp survivors, all but one of whom were Polish Catholics. “A lone Jew represented the more than one million Jews who died there.” The German bishops, on the other hand, had acknowledged that the “overwhelming majority of prisoners and victims in this camp consisted of Jews.”

In spite of my hope that the published text of the pope’s remarks at Auschwitz would yield clear evidence to the contrary (“The Pope’s Visit to Auschwitz,” Origins, 6/8/06), one must concede the legitimacy of Carroll’s most pointed criticisms.

The pope did say that “a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation’s honor” and that “through terror and intimidation … used and abused (the German people) as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.” On the surface, at least, the statement portrays the German citizenry of that time almost as much the victims of Hitler’s regime as were the millions of Jews who perished.

Pope Benedict also did say explicitly that the “rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth,” but then he returned to the theme that the assault against the Jews was really an assault upon Christianity: “By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.”

Relations between Catholics and Jews have improved tremendously since and because of the Second Vatican Council and its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), and also because of the new direction set by Pope John XXIII and carried forward by Paul VI and John Paul II.

Undoubtedly, Pope Benedict XVI will be as determined as his predecessors to continue the process of repentance and healing.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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